As a general rule, a judge is immune or protected from lawsuits seeking money damages for any actions performed by the judge as part of his or her official duties. Judicial immunity thus shields a judge from liability for unpopular or controversial judgments. Judicial immunity encourages an independent judiciary and allows a judge to make decisions without fearing retaliation.
A judicial act covered by judicial immunity is an act that occurs while the judge is resolving a dispute. The courts have adopted a test to determine if an act is judicial. First, does a judge normally perform the act? Second, did the parties deal with the judge in his or her judicial capacity? If the answers to these two questions are yes, the judge may not be sued for his or her action. Some examples of judicial or official acts are issuing a search warrant and denying an application for admission to a state bar.
A judge can be sued for money damages based on his or her nonjudicial actions (actions not made in a judge's official capacity). A judge is also liable for actions that are judicial in nature but taken when the judge lacks jurisdiction or authority over the matter. For example, a probate judge has authority to administer the estate or assets of a person who has died, but a probate judge would be acting outside of his or her jurisdiction if he or she tried a criminal case.
Judges may not violate a person's civil rights. Judges thus can be sued for nonjudicial acts, such as sexual harassment, employment disputes with court workers, and criminal acts while serving as a judge. For example, a state court judge did not have absolute or complete immunity from a damages suit based on his decision to demote and dismiss a probation officer because the action was administrative rather than judicial. A juvenile court judge who initiated a criminal prosecution and civil contempt proceeding against a father for unpaid child support committed nonjudicial acts. He was not immune from liability for his actions.
In one case, the court found that a judge who instituted a criminal investigation against an unhappy litigant had absolute immunity because the litigant's threatening conduct was focused on the judge's judicial role. The judge had presided over a case against the litigant. However, the judge was not entitled to absolute judicial immunity as to her alleged false statements about the litigant to the news media.
Court officials other than judges have qualified immunity. If the official's act did not violate a person's clearly established legal rights and the official's actions were made in good faith (the official believed that his or her conduct was lawful), the official cannot be held liable for money damages.